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Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, was a major poet of the second half of the twentieth century. Brooks is best known for her sensitive portraits of urban blacks who encounter racism and poverty in their daily lives.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Brooks was raised in Chicago, the eldest child of a schoolteacher and a janitor who, because he lacked the funds to finish school, did not achieve his dream of becoming a doctor. According to George Kent, as a child Brooks ”was spurned by members of her own race because she lacked social or athletic abilities, a light skin, and good grade hair.” Brooks was hurt by such rejection, and she found solace in her writing. Impressed by her early poems, her mother predicted she would become ”the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar”—one of the earliest and most famous African American poets.
Brooks received compliments on her poems and encouragement from James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, prominent writers with whom she initiated correspondence and whose readings she attended in Chicago. By the age of sixteen, Brooks had compiled a substantial portfolio, including about seventy-five published poems. After graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1936, she worked briefly as a cleaning woman and then as a secretary to a ”spiritual advisor” who sold potions and charms to residents of the Mecca, a Chicago tenement building. During this time she participated in poetry workshops at Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, producing verse that would appear in her first published volume, A Street in Bronzeville (1945).
Growing Political Awareness
Brooks experienced a change in political consciousness and artistic direction after witnessing the combative spirit of several young black authors at the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University in 1967. Around the same time, Brooks began her association with the Blackstone Rangers, a large gang of teenaged blacks in Chicago. In the late 1960s she held a poetry workshop for the Rangers. Here she began a continuing intense interest in fostering the talents of young black poets. As a result, her poetry underwent a major transformation, and she began to express a deep concern for the black nationalist movement and racial solidarity. During that time, the Civil Rights Movement was making great strides in reducing institutionalized racial discrimination, but at the same time, radicalized leaders in the Black Power Movement were calling for more drastic measures to combat continued white domination. Her work with black artists and activists led Brooks to write poetry that more clearly advocated embracing a black identity and transforming black activism into a powerful political force.
During the 1970s, though, she began expressing disenchantment with the divisions that had emerged within and between the Black Power and Civil Rights movements. Although she did not change her political orientation, she came more and more to focus on encouraging and assisting young African American artists and supporting black businesses, particularly publishing companies. She left Harper & Row and began publishing her poetry through Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, a company that published a number of important African American writers. She has also published some of her works through Third World Press, a company run by one of the young poets she had met in the 1960s.
Awards and Service In addition to writing, Brooks was also dedicated to teaching, and she was a source of encouragement for younger poets. Beginning in 1963, she taught at various institutions, and in 1969 she established the Illinois Poet Laureate Award to encourage younger writers. Brooks was named poet laureate of the state of Illinois in 1978, and by the 1980s, Brooks was a widely respected and much-awarded author. In 1980, she read her works at the White House, and from 1985 to 1986, she served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In 1987 Brooks became the first black woman to be elected an honorary fellow of the Modern Language Association.
Works in Literary Context
Gwendolyn Brooks holds a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she also has managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young black militant writers of the 1960s.
Documenting the Black Experience
During her prolific career, Brooks used her writing to explore the poetic dimensions of the lives of black people. In her many forums, she listened to the voices of the kitchenette dwellers, the gang members, the woman pregnant with an unwanted child; she remained attentive to the sounds and sights of the larger world, as well. Brooks was a public poet, a democratic poet, and a word activist who had a passionate and ongoing commitment to working with young people. Whether they be college students, elementary-school students, or members of the Black-stone Rangers gang, Brooks believed that poetry has the ability to transform people’s lives.
Changing Perspectives on Discrimination
In her early work, Brooks avoided overt statements about the plight of many blacks in America, prompting critics to define the appeal of her poetry as “universal.” Although Brooks’s first collection of poems, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), focused on her experiences as a black American, it introduced broad thematic issues that would feature prominently in her works during the next two decades: family life, war, the quest for contentment and honor, and the hardships caused by racism and poverty. Her second collection of poetry, Annie Allen (1949), focused on the growth of the title character from childhood to adulthood in an environment replete with indigence and discrimination.
During the late 1960s, however, her writing underwent a radical change in style and subject matter. Inspired by the black power movement and the militancy of such poets as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), Brooks began to explore the marginality of black life through vivid imagery and forceful language and to recognize rage and despair among black people as her own. The verse in Selected Poems (1963) evidenced Brooks’s growing interest in social issues and the influence of the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. It was not until Riot (1969) and Family Pictures (1970) that Brooks began examining the social upheavals of the late 1960s by exploring the revolutionary legacy of such slain black activists as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
While her concern for the black nationalist movement and racial solidarity continued to dominate her verse in the early 1970s, the energy and optimism of Riot and Family Pictures were replaced with disenchantment resulting from the divisions that had appeared among civil rights and black nationalist groups. Although the increasing political schisms within the African American community as well as white reaction against gains made in the 1960s did not change Brooks’s political beliefs, they did influence the tone of her poetry, pushing to explore the problems of bitterness and vengeance. Despite this shift in thematic concern, she continued to be noted for the objectivity of her poetry and her unsentimental take on humanity. However, as the 1970s wore on, Brooks’ poetry became more overtly political than in the past. In Beckonings (1975) and To Disembark (1981), Brooks urged blacks to break free from the repression of white American society, and the clear political content of these poems led some critics to accuse her of celebrating and advocating violence.
Works in Critical Context
Critics generally praised Brooks for her subtle humor and irony, her skillful handling of conventional poetic forms, and her invention of the sonnet-ballad, a verse structure integrating colloquial speech and formal diction. However, the literary quality of her later poetry has been debated by critics. Some commentators have faulted her for sacrificing formal complexity and subtlety for political polemic. According to D. H. Melhem, however, Brooks ”enriches both black and white cultures by revealing essential life, its universal identities, and the challenge it poses to a society beset with corruption and decay.”
Brooks’s second book of poems, Annie Allen (1949), began the movement of Brooks’s poetry toward social issues, though it remained firmly grounded in real people. As Langston Hughes put it in a complimentary review of the collection, ”The people and poems in Gwendolyn Brooks’s book are alive, reaching, and very much of today.” Despite some reservations, Annie Allen was well received in the mainstream press. In the New York Times Book Review, Phyllis McGinley found ”The Anniad” outstanding and felt that when Brooks forgot ”her social conscience and her Guggenheim scholarship” she created ”unbearable excitement.” Other reviewers mixed praise with complaints of obscurity and emerging propaganda. However, there was widespread agreement that Brooks presented a unique and compelling poetic voice. As the Reference Guide to American Literature put it, ”Brooks writes both powerfully and universally out of the black American milieu, exploring the nature of racism, sexism, and classism in the United States in a distinctive poetic style.” Annie Allen won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first time that the award had been presented to a black honoree.
In the Mecca
The publication of In the Mecca in 1968 heralded a new political and aesthetic sensibility derived from the changing consciousness in the black community in the 1960s. To reviewers, In the Mecca was often a somewhat startling work, although most acknowledged that it was powerful. M. L. Rosenthal, writing in the New York Times, felt that the title poem was ”overwrought with effects” and that the poet seemed to back away from her ”overpowering subject.” But he concluded that the poem ”had the power of its materials and holds the imagination fixed on the horrid predicament of real Americans whose everyday world haunts the nation’s conscience intolerably.” William Stafford of Poetry magazine felt that Brooks achieved a ”special kind of complexity” and that, although the poems were sometimes confusingly local in reference, ”portions of the book come through strong.” James N. Johnson in Ramparts magazine judged it Brooks’s best work since A Street in Bronzeville.
- Baker, Houston A., Jr. Singers of Daybreak: Studies in Black American Literature. Washington, D.C.: Howartt University Press, 1974.
- Berry, S. L. Gwendolyn Brooks. Mankato, Minn.: Creative Education, 1993.
- Brown, Patricia Scott, Don L. Lee, and Francis Ward, eds. To Gwen with Love: An Anthology Dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago: Johnson Publishing, 1971.
- Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History & Discord. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Evans, Mar, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984.
- Kamp, Jim, ed. Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1994.
- Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
- Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.
- Miller, R. Baxter. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks: A Reference Guide. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1966.
- Mootry, Maria K. and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
- Redmond, Eugene B. Drumvoices: the Mission of Afro-American Poetry. New York: Doubleday, 1976. Wright, Stephen Caldwell. On Gwendolyn Brooks: reliant contemplation. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1996.
- Hughes, Langston. ”Name, Race, and Gift in Common.” Voices (Winter 1950): 54-56.
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